COLUMN: ISRO spectrum scam, or just sloppy journalism?

Good intentions cannot be a substitute for good judgement.

The Indian media has, with some exception, discharged its duty well in keeping many scams and corrupt deals high on the public’s consciousness and bringing corrupt public officials to book.

But the latest controversy over satellite transponder deal between ISRO and Devas Multimedia is a clear-cut case of a media intoxicated with its power failing to due its basic duty.

As any journalist would tell you, ‘stories’ come to you in different formats and often have someone’s vested interest behind them. While that is unavoidable, the least expected from the reporter is that he or she cross checks the allegations before publishing them.

In the case of the ISRO-Devas deal, that has unfortunately not been done. The first failure was in the newsroom of the venerable The Hindu, which repeated unsubstantiated allegations that the ‘spectrum’ was worth Rs 2,00,000 crore or more. Unfortunately, The Hindu failed to check whether 70 MHz of satellite spectrum can indeed be worth such a fabulous amount of money. Since a single satellite can often have 1,000 MHz or more of ‘spectrum’ [read transponder capacity], selling the capacity on a single satellite should fetch Rs 30,00,000 crore (Rs 30 lakh crore.)

Considering that India’s space budget is only around Rs 4,500 crore a year, a single satellite should not only help India recoup all the money it has spent on space program in the last 40 years, but also support it for the next few decades.

Unfortunately for The Hindu and the rest of the media, the economics of satellite transponder business is not that lucrative; and that is where the media failed its basic duty to counter-check the allegations. All that was needed was a single phone call to any top level executive of any media company to find out what the exact price of satellite spectrum was. Neither The Hindu nor trigger happy channels like Times Now [“scandal bigger than 2G scam”] bothered.

Now, the facts of the case — satellite spectrum costs around one hundredth of 3G spectrum — primarily because it’s not that useful and there is tons of it.

Satellite spectrum starts where mobile and 3G spectrum leave off — at around 2,500 MHz. Most of the mobile spectrum has the 800-900 MHz frequency, while ground TV transmission happens at around 700 MHz.

The reason people don’t use satellite frequency for mobile [and therefore, doesn’t cost as much] has to do with the laws of electromagnetic transmission. The higher the frequency, the more ‘straight line only’ is its path. While TV signals at 700 MHz can stream in through your windows and ‘penetrate’ your walls, it is a tougher job for 3G spectrum, which works in the 2,100 MHz frequency.

For satellite spectrum, which starts at around 2,600 MHz, it becomes even more difficult to penetrate trees and concrete jungles and reach inside. That, of course, is part of the reason why you can get Doordarshan signals with an indoor antenna, but not DTH signals.

The other reason is the sheer availability. While the total mobile spectrum in the country [including 3G] is only around 200 MHz (including to and fro), satellite spectrum starts at 2,600 MHz and stretches all the way to 40,000 MHz. In other words, technically, there is about 37,000 MHz of satellite spectrum available, compared to 200 MHz of mobile, making the latter more costly.

It must, however, be pointed out that the S Band frequencies is where satellite spectrum starts and therefore are have the best propagation characteristics. Conventionally, S Band is somewhere between 2,500 MHz to around 4,500 MHz, follwed by the ‘C Band’ used for ‘normal’ satellite communication and Ku Band used for DTH services.

So, unlike media’s estimate of Rs 2,00,000 crore, 72 MHz of satellite transponder capacity — whether in the S Band or C Band or Ku Band — costs only Rs 12 to 15 crore a year. And all it would have taken was just a phone call.